Living in a Catholic bubble paralyzes progress in Africa

2013-03-18 09:52

Ephemera in my possession includes a programme, bound in red leather trimmed in gold, commemorating the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to Africa in 1995. His Holiness left in his wake various favours given to my father who was Nelson Mandela’s Chief of Protocol at the time: a purple and gold bookmark, a plastic rosary blessed by the Holy Father himself, and this programme which is a testament to the pomp and ceremony of a Catholicism.

The 1995 Apostolic Journey was suggested by the Episcopate, calling for the Pope to visit three African cities - Yaoundé, Johannesburg and Nairobi -  representing the different regions of the continent. The programme outlines in minute detail the procedures and rituals to be followed at the time: at which moments incense is to be burned in a pot, which liturgical dance is to accompany which verse; at Yaoundé in particular, the Book of the Word of God (not to be confused with the Gospel) was to carried by a young woman on her shoulders, as she was accompanied by persons and by gestures of Ethiopian tradition ‘which express the fruitfulness of the Word in the good soil of human hearts’.

The 1995 visit had a two-fold purpose for Pope John Paul II, wrote Donald McNeil in the New York Times. 'He promised to close the synod in Africa since Africa’s Christian bishops had travelled to Rome to open it; and he was at last able to visit South Africa after he’d sworn never to set foot in the land until the abhorrent system of apartheid was defeated'. As then-President Nelson Mandela met the Pope at Jan Smuts airport (now OR Tambo International) in Johannesburg, he expressed his gratitude for the long papal campaign of passive resistance.

In South Africa, the public celebration of the Holy Eucharist was held at Gosforth Park race track in front of an audience of 300 000. And in private issues of most importance were addressed by the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of the Bishops - namely peace, justice and reconciliation and resurrecting a new South Africa from the ashes.

Which is all very well, but my heavens, one cannot ignore the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church! As it was pointing one finger at SA all those years ago, three were pointing back at the corrupt system which saw widespread child abuse scandals unravel over the ensuing years, and bitter infighting in the Vatican bureaucracy, some of it, certainly, having to do with whether or not an African Pope was ready and able to lead the Church. Obviously an African Pope has yet to become a reality, which might be a good thing considering the staunch adherence of African Catholics to Catholic rules.

According to a recent Reuters report, African Catholics make up some 16% of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. They are also are among its most conservative believers, expressing their collective hope that Pope Francis ‘will champion the traditional Church teachings which oppose same sex relationships, abortion, contraception, and women priests’.

As His Holiness speaks out against the market-driven consumer culture that he calls the ‘curse of the world’, perhaps he will also speak out against another curse – an inability to acknowledge, by the Catholic Church itself, the problems of current times and the severe consequences of living in a bubble.

Will Francis consider that entrenching tradition will keep Africa entrenched in real, emotional and intellectual poverty? African women will remain sidelined, pregnant, sick with HIV. And so-help-you-God, man or woman, if you are gay. Seems that although wealthy western Catholics no longer have ten kids as the rhythm method is in decline as a contraceptive, only poor Catholics bring vast numbers of children into the world. An unacceptable number of African children end up orphaned,  living under the care of frail grandparents after their mothers perish of HIV/ AIDS related illness which could have been prevented by using the forbidden condom.

If Francis’s desire is to alleviate poverty, in his humility he might move a step away from the pretention and pomp so colourfully displayed on papal visits such as the one to Africa in 1995 (a 135-man honour guard met the pope off the plane, plus bands and Bishops kitted out in red sashes, and Mandela wore a dark suit!). Perhaps he will come properly down to earth. He might see that in Africa too many unwanted, impoverished children are brought into this world to suffer; too many Africans die of AIDS; and sexual orientation is no grounds for condemnation.

Whereas John Paul II gets points for rallying for the downfall of apartheid, and Benedict, known as the ‘Green Pope’ will be remembered for bringing attention to climate change, one hopes (in vain) that Francis’s papal legacy might be to encourage responsible attitudes towards every aspect of life, including sex and sexuality. As the Dalai Lama says, ‘in theory all religions recommend compassion, and tolerance too, generosity, the taste for knowledge, all the good human qualities.’

I confess here that I am the product of a church school. A convent. It wasn’t all bad. As a result of years of duty as a sacristan, I had access to a small cupboard in the vestry where the wine and wafers were kept. I reckoned that God didn’t really mind (although the principal at the time might have) that I was helping myself to a tipple or two to get me through tedious afternoons of study.

Grateful to my alma mater for providing so much, no wonder I felt compelled then, as an adult, to send my daughters to church schools. Some might argue that I perpetuated a cycle of abuse on account of having found comfort myself in the rituals (and the vino) but hey, it worked for me. Not only did I get a solid education, I learned self-flagellation and lessons in guilt to keep me on the straight and narrow (though it didn’t apply when raiding the vestry).

I’ve had a life of pagan rites, incense, hymns, rhythmic repetitive responsorial psalms almost like brain-washing, although I must confess too that I enjoyed the rituals. I still do, I sing with gusto at weddings and funerals, and there is place for being on one's knees. I have though, felt a late-blooming rebellion against having to confess sins and feeling guilt for guilt’s sake. I've learned that guilt is a useless emotion. It's a paralyzing emotion. 

But without suffering where would the Catholics be? How would they define themselves if it wasn't through sin, suffering and guilt? Though it’s early days, it’s unlikely that one man can release the springs of the stocks. If only Francis could unburden his flock, focus on a celebration of life, encourage a more healthy attitude towards reality here on earth, wouldn’t that be grand? I think God (if one is a believer) might approve. God might well like to see the 'good soil of human hearts' cultivated for progress.

I'm on twitter @JoanneHichens

P.S. For the record, church schools played a vital role during apartheid as they offered a sanctuary of learning for children of all colours.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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